Katharine Juliet Ross was born on January 29, 1940 in Hollywood, California, to Katharine W. (Hall) and Dudley T. Ross. Her father, who also worked for the Associated Press, was away in the US Navy when she was born. His navy career shuttled the family around to Virginia, then Palo Alto, and finally to Walnut Creek, outside of San Francisco, where Ross grew up. Katharine’s ancestry includes Scottish, German, Channel Islander (Guernsey), and English.
Ross graduated from Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek in 1957 and attended Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area, where she took part in her first onscreen work in a student film. Moving to San Francisco, into an apartment on Stockton Street above a grocery store, she began her acting career as an understudy in Actor’s Workshop productions, and was soon auditioning for roles. She was also married in 1960 to college sweetheart Joel Fabiani, the first of five husbands.
Work came quickly for Ross, at first mainly in television westerns, and indeed Westerns would make up the majority of her best-known work, her natural beauty being a strong asset in that genre. She made her TV debut in an episode of Sam Benedict (1962), and her first film role was in the Civil War era Shenandoah (1965) starring James Stewart. Ross’s career as a leading actress began in earnest in 1967, with her strong turn co-starring with James Caan and Simone Signoret in Games (1967), and with The Graduate (1967). Ross’s performance as Elaine earned her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
A disappointing, formulaic John Wayne vehicle, Hellfighters (1968), followed but she soon returned to form with two films with Robert Redford. As Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Ross was part of the most memorable scene from that hit film, precariously perched barefoot on the bumper of that newfangled contraption, the bicycle, as Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy takes her for a ride. The compelling Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) was less of a box office success but more highly regarded by the critics, and Ross won a BAFTA Award for her work as Lola, a Paiute Indian who flees with her boyfriend, played by Robert Blake, after he kills her father in self-defense.
Swept up into a whirlwind of fame, widely idealized as the symbol of beauty for the Woodstock generation, Ross had accomplished so much so quickly that it seemed her entire career had happened almost all at once, in that frenzy of activity between 1967 and 1969. Sure enough, there followed a long dry spell in which she was mostly cast in forgettable roles; her next strong film wasn’t for another six years. In The Stepford Wives (1975), an intriguing black comedy-cum-horror film, Ross plays a independent, free-spirited wife newly relocated to a suburb where the other wives all seem to be just a little too perfect, too submissive; it was arguably her strongest performance to date, but Stepford Wives would prove to be but a temporary resurgence for Ross, and her work in the decade and a half to follow would include such star-studded duds as The Betsy (1978), and a return to TV, including a part in primetime soap opera The Colbys (1985). Along the way, however, Ross found love. After four failed marriages (the second, third and fourth were to John Marion, Conrad L. Hall and Gaetano Lisi respectively), she met her current husband Sam Elliott, while working on The Legacy (1978). The two actors married in 1984, and in the same year had a daughter, Cleo.
In 1991, Ross and Elliott adapted the Louis L’Amour novel, Conagher (1991), for television in a remarkably affecting Western tale which showcases both actors’ remarkable talents. Ross continues to take roles on occasion and, as usual, her work is strong — something that was sometimes overlooked in her youth due to her famous beauty. For instance, Ross turned up in Donnie Darko (2001), in a solid performance as Donnie’s psychiatrist.
Ross and Elliott live on their ranchito in Malibu.
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